Moving away from Absolutism

France endured centuries of Absolute Monarchs that spent much of their kingdom’s wealth on lavish buildings, monuments, and other signs of status, while the common people, known as the third estate, remained poor, hungry and devoid of power.  Though the third estate lacked power through the traditional estate system, as the clergy and nobility could overrule their political ambitions, it consisted of 96% of the French population.  Because it held the overwhelming majority of the population, members of the third estate believed that they should hold more power over France’s decisions.  Thus power was subsequently moved away from absolute rulers, nobility, and clergy and towards the third estate.

One of the most profound demonstrations of this shift was the change from the state following Catholicism to supporting more general Deist practices.  Revolutionaries saw the clergy as a corrupt entity created to justify a Monarch as well as being a way to neutralize the common man’s power in the estate system.  Therefore, revolutionaries aimed to reduce its power by shifting France’s religion to Deism.  This meant that the clergy and nobility would have less power over the third estate.  Likewise, it meant that the third estate now had control over their own religious preferences and would not have to pay to the church.

Another shift away from the past Absolutist ways of France was the general condemnation of royalty.  Children were prohibited from receiving names of past kings such as Louis, Francis, or Henry.  Kings and queens where removed from games such as chess and cards.  The general attitude of disapproval of royalty was promoted by members of the third estate as they realized their power as their society’s majority.

France underwent a shift away from absolutism towards democracy.  Much of the government supported by the revolutionaries had roots to the Greek concepts of equality and free thought.  These ideas mixed with the third estate’s desire to have political input and led France in its modernization and ultimately its rejection of Absolutist practices.

Heads Would Roll, But That Wasn’t Enough

Just as Louis XIV  created symbols of his power as the absolute ruler of France, such as the palace of Versailles and even himself (he was the “Sun King” and claimed that he was the state/the state was him), so did the leaders of the French Revolution create their own symbols and culture in order to aid their overthrow of the monarchy and subsequent attempts to create a whole  new society.

In a pamphlet entitled What is the Third Estate?, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès wrote that the Third Estate was “everything.” He argued that because the Third Estate made up the vast majority of France’s people (about 96%), and because it was the only segment of the Estates-General that contributed to the maintenance and betterment of the state, that it therefore was the state. Here, Sieyès made the opposite claim as Louis XIV, but he makes his claim for the same reason: to show where the power of France should lay. Instead of making the king the symbol of France, Sieyès made the common people the symbol of the nation. This trend continued in some of the artwork of the revolutionary period, as common people were shown dressed in fine clothing and in improved health but also performing tasks that would be useful to both themselves and the greater good of the state.

When Maximilien Robespierre wrote about the Supreme Being, he did so not out of religious fervor (although that could have played a role) but because the revolutionaries needed another way to unite the diverse peoples of France. Robespierre asserted that the French Revolution would be supported by the Supreme Being, as He created man to seek liberty and punish tyrants. Robespierre cleverly wrote about the Supreme Being in a Deist manner that would allow both Catholics and people of a more agnostic/atheist persuasion to relate to Robespierre’s argument, and his version of the Supreme Being also enabled him to maintain the Enlightenment ideal of Reason without completely trampling religion into the dirt.

Fashion during the revolutionary period also took on an Enlightenment spin, as dressing in clothes inspired by ancient Greece became a trend. The French thought of the people of ancient Greece as great thinkers and writers, so they sought to emulate this society that placed a value on reason that they saw as being like France’s. Additionally, the first known democracy occurred in ancient Greece, and while France by no means became the paragon of democracy at that point, people of a revolutionary mindset wanted to invoke the Greeks as an example of a nation that placed a high value on liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Chopping off some elaborately coiffed heads could not transform France alone; alongside the political actions and ramifications of the revolution, revolutionary leaders changed the symbols and culture of France in order to unite the Third Estate in rejection of the old order.

Questions for your consideration:

How does Robespierre’s treatment of religion compare to or differ from that of other revolutionary leaders (such as those in the American Revolution or the Communist revolution in Russia)?

In what other ways did the revolutionaries of France use symbols to their advantage? What kinds of symbols do we and/or our leaders use in the U.S. today?

Do you agree that the political revolution in France would not have been possible had it not been accompanied by a cultural one as well?




Cult of the Supreme Being

Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being was a form of Deism intended to replace Christianity as the national religion of France. It emphasized the existence of a single god, the immortality of the human soul, and placed considerable weight on natural observation and reason. Though somewhat consistent with Christian principles, these beliefs were aimed to promote public well being, rather than the well being of the church.

The Cult of the Supreme Being was designed to adapt the belief in god to the Enlightenment. Robespierre wanted to find a middle ground between devout Christianity and Atheism. He denounced complete de-Christianization, which sought to completely rid France of the religion, but also condemned the church and king for disfiguring “Divinity by superstition,” and associating “it with their crimes.”

Robespierre argued that the Christian Church had become corrupt, and that Christianity had become a way for the Clergy steal money from the Third Estate, and an excuse for the Nobility retain power. He Stated that God “did not create kings to devour the human race. He did not create priests to harness us, like vile animals, to the chariots of kings and to give to the world examples of baseness, pride, perfidy, avarice, debauchery, and falsehood,” rather “he created the universe to proclaim His power. He created men to help each other, to love each other mutually, and to attain to happiness by the way of virtue.” Robespierre saw the Cult of the Supreme Being as the way to reach this mutual happiness.

Connecting the Declaration of Independence and What is the Third Estate

The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and signed in 1776 is unquestionably one of the most well-known and significant documents in American history. It spoke against British control and tyranny at that time. Jefferson pens, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Blaisdell 63-64) Jefferson then lists several of “His” (The King of England) transgressions and the overarching aspiration to form a state separate from England and all of the injustices that have been performed under English rule. He states, “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of free people” (Blaisdell 66) and declares the freedom of the respective colonies.

Emmanual Joseph Sieyes brings forth similar emotions in his work, What is the Third Estate? Sieyes speaks out against “the privileged” when he writes, “’No matter how useful you are, ‘they said, ‘no matter how able you are, you can go so far and no further.’”(Blaisdell 72) Sieyes urges his fellow people to rise up against the wide-ranging umbrella of limitations and stresses the importance of reaching the estate’s full potential. He argues the Third Estate “contains everything that pertains to the nation” (Blaisdell 74) and questions why the estate is not something greater. These documents have inherent parallels and pose comparable points and questions, with Sieyes and Jefferson aiming for a similar goal.

Thoughts on the Declaration of Independence and the Third Estate

The document originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson and signed by fifty-six men on July 4th, 1776 that was coined the “unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America” (Blaisdell 63) and later became known as the Declaration of Independence, remains to this day the most famous and important document in American history. Throughout this document, the framers specifically highlight and outline wrongdoings committed by the King of England and ultimately their desire to form a new sovereign nation separate from England. With the abuses committed by the English monarchy, it became their right “to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security” (Blaisdell 64). The Declaration of Independence creates the United States of America, a free and independent nation that has the “full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do” (Blaisdell 66).

Similar to the power that was desired in accordance to the Declaration of Independence, in Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes’ What is the Third Estate? he believes that the Third Estate of France was entitled to more power and respect than they have been given. According to Sieyes, out of all public and private services, “it needs no detailed analysis to show that the Third Estate everywhere constitutes nineteen-twentieths of them” (Blaisdell 72). Clearly, the message that Sieyes wants to relay is that a monarchy is not necessary for the people of France to function. They would be fine and most likely better off if they were to overthrow or rebel against the Crown. The French Revolution ensued and lead to The Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This was created with very similar rights in mind as the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence and The Third Estate

Thomas Jefferson wrote up the draft to a very important document back in 1776. It was known as “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America” (Blaisdell 63) but came to be known as the Declaration of Independence. This document explained what the government should do for its people to prove that the king of England was not the proper or wanted ruler for the colonies anymore. It explained how the government should help out the citizens rather than hold them back, how it should promote safety and happiness (Blaisdell 64).

This leads into Sieyès’ document “What is the Third Estate?”. He is trying to provoke a similar rebellion to the one that happened over in America. He wants  the people of France to realize they don’t need. King just like the colonies of America didn’t. To do this, Sieyès explains how the Third Estate is everything (Blaisdell 70) and how they don’t need anyone from outside the Third Estate to help them run the government (Blaisdell 74). All this talk of a new government would lead up to the Tennis Court Oath, where the National Assembly of France. Owed to work until they made a new constitution and the king was out of power (Blaisdell 78).

Independence and the Third Estate

After years of British tyranny over the colonies, a call for revolution was drafted to grant freedom and equality to all. A government was established that gave power to the people. As a result of restrictive British control, the writers of the declaration declared, “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive, it is the Right of the people to alter or to abolish it” (Blaisdell 64). Jefferson and his counterparts believed that all men were equal and attacked British tyranny over the colonies, listing a number of facts of their tyranny to be read by the rest of the world. As representative of the United States, they conclude “these United Colonies… are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown… and that all political connection between them… is ought to be totally dissolved… as Free and Independent States… they have full power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce” (Blaisdell 66). Breaking away from British control would allow an entire new nation to take form built on its own beliefs and policies, different from those seen previously in Europe (absolute monarchs).


According to Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, in order for a nation to survive “it needs private and public services” (Blaisdell 71). These activities are needed to support a society, without them a nation would crumble. In his work, What is the Third Estate?, Sieyes claims that the Third Estate is the group that performs “nineteen-twentieths” (Blaisdell 72) of these activities. Without this group, society would not exist. The very importance of the Third Estate constitutes its power it should have within a given society. They should have more rights than others, including nobility, because they are the glue that keeps society together.

Power Struggles Present in the Declaration of Independence and The Third Estate

The Declaration of Independence clearly establishes the kind power the United States is looking for through a representation of Britain’s tight control. The Declaration of Independence exemplifies how the king caused “repeated injuries and usurpations” (Blaisdell 64) as well as acted in every way “which may define a tyrant” (Blaisdell 66). The United States is looking for a government that allows power to be given to the people. The authors of this document believe that men are born with certain rights, and in order to protect those rights, the people should have a say in the government. The Declaration of Independence goes on to state that is the “Right of the People” to alter the government if the government were not working or becomes “destructive” in any way (Blaisdell 64). The main intent behind this document is to stray away from the “absolute tyranny,” and create an inclusive government where the people’s voices are heard (Blaisdell 64).

Sieyès argues over power among classes in his What is the Third Estate? He argues that the privileged have set limits to the third estate, stating, “you can go so far and no further” (Blaisdell 72). However, Sieyès points out that it is the third estate that occupies certain jobs that keep society running as it should, therefore, the third state is everything and should have more rights. Sieyès goes on to claim that the privileged do not help society because of its “idleness,” but are granted certain rights because of their place in society (Blaisdell 73). Sieyès continues, stating that nobility has special rights making them “a people apart in the great nation” which forms the separation of powers between the third estate and the nobility (Blaisdell 73). Sieyès believed the nation would be better off without the nobility because the third state held society together.

The Declaration of Independence and the Third Estate

The Declaration of Independence discusses the reasons why the United States decided to break off from England and become its own nation. This document discusses how it is a government’s responsibility to protect certain rights of the citizens: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (Blaisdell 64). If a government does not protect these rights, then it is the rights of the governed people to “abolish it, and to institute new Government” (Blaisdell 64). The British government did not protect and uphold these rights of the people; rather, it caused a series of “repeated injuries” and established “absolute Tyranny over these States” (Blaisdell 64). The writers of the Declaration were clearly not satisfied with the government and how it protected its people. Therefore, they intended to create their own new form of government, which would do a better job in helping its citizens instead of merely ignoring their concerns. In this case, political power is created through a new form of government with different branches, such as a Representative House, Legislature, and Judiciary powers.

In France, the citizens also were not satisfied with their government. The Third Estate of France is described as “everything;” the people of the Third Estate are the commoners (Blaisdell 70). Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, author of What is the Third Estate? describes how the Third Estate is a complete nation by itself. In order to be considered a nation, it must provide “private activities and public services” (Blasdell 71), which the Third Estate does provide. For example, it must provide public services such as “the army, the law, the Church, and the bureaucracy” and private activities such as merchants, families who work on land, and the sale of goods (Blaisdell 71-72). France cannot run without the Third Estate and would ultimately do much better without the first two estates. The French are concerned with establishing their own rights: “Liberty, Prosperity, Security, and Resistance of Oppression” (Blaisdell 80). The French were less interested than the Americans establishing a new form of government that protected the rights of the citizens; rather, they concentrated on establishing a government that kept part of their old form of government and bashing the rest of their government.

Revolutionary Popular Thought and Culture in France

The French Revolution transformed France from a society based on the tradition of divine right rule of kings and fixed social status of clergy, nobility, and peasantry, to a new political order based on the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The new political order sought to change virtually everything the monarchy had established. The tax system was abolished and decision-making was taken out of the hands of the monarchy and clergy. The third estate was able to attain the rights to land ownership, which provided financial relief such that a larger more diverse population could now live prosperously. This empowered the people. The popular cultural mindset of the revolution was based on individual freedoms and equality.

The Age of Enlightenment brought significant changes to popular culture. Institutions were confiscated from the church and turned into secular based schools, and churches themselves became temples of reason. The old scientific academies were replaced with ones that used the new scientific method. The metric system was established and days of the week were extended from seven to ten. Society was moving away from a religious based culture to one of reason and virtue.

Music had the most significant influence on the people, and served to propel the revolution. Not only was the song culture a method to build solidarity among the working class and the illiterate, it delivered strong political messages. Songs played a vital roll in unifying the citizenry and ultimately created an early French feeling of nationalism. Music was so easily transferred and contagious that it became a revolutionary weapon. Through music, the people joined forces, regardless of social class, and became united in purpose. Today, the French populace continues to rally through song at social events, and will always find significance in their national anthem, La Marseillaise.